No Democrat has courted business with the ardor that Bill Clinton displayed during the first half of his term. He alienated much of his liberal base to back deficit reduction and trade-expansion pacts, key goals of Corporate America. Thanks to Clinton's trusted counselor, Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III, the White House became a place where CEOs with a problem could get a sympathetic hearing. And Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown turned his department into a free-floating bazaar to hawk U.S. exports.
Well, McLarty is still schmoozing, and Brown is still hustling. But the President's fondness for his business chums has cooled in the wake of the Republican takeover of Congress. With a tough reelection race ahead, Clinton is reprising the outsider themes of his '92 campaign by blasting business lobbyists and their GOP allies. The charge: In the murky light of congressional backrooms, influence is being peddled to the highest bidder.
VETO THREAT. Clinton's war on Gucci Gulch is partly personal, partly political. Aides say the President is miffed that, despite his wooing, CEOs overwhelmingly back House Speaker Newt Gingrich's regulation-slashing radicals. Clinton also hopes to capitalize on polls indicating that--despite the GOP revolution on Capitol Hill--independent swing voters still believe Washington is dominated by organized interests.
Lobbyist-bashing has other virtues as well. The White House has six GOP-backed pieces of legislation under veto threat. Some prime targets: banking and telecom reform bills. Depicting these high-profile measures as the handiwork of shadowy lobbyists makes their rejection more justifiable to voters--and could force business to cough up concessions.
Clinton's New Populism was on display on Aug. 8, when he trekked to Baltimore. Framed by the grimy backdrop of Bethlehem Steel Corp. smokestacks, he railed against the "brazen display of...special-interest groups" that, he claimed, led House Republicans to gut environmental safeguards.
According to White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, the broadside is part of a campaign to depict the GOP-controlled Congress as a place where corporate interests prevail over working-class concerns. "Lobbyist friends are telling me that you have to be stupid not to take advantage of what's happening on Capitol Hill," Panetta says. "For a price, you can just about buy any legislation." Replies Tom Korologos, a business lobbyist with GOP ties: "Somehow, it's O.K. for unions, Common Cause, and Friends of the Earth to be in the backroom writing bills" for Democrats, but it's taboo for business lawyers to play the same role.
Clinton isn't alone on the attack. Vice-President Al Gore has assailed House-passed telecommunications legislation as riddled with sweetheart provisions that were "sold to the highest bidder." Gore alleges that lobbyists for cable-TV companies and the Baby Bells turned the bill into an anticonsumer measure that will hike rates and reduce competition.
On Aug. 4, Clinton upped the ante. He announced he was issuing an Executive Order that would bar executive-branch employees from meeting with special-interest representatives who don't publicly disclose their clients. White House pols believe such tactics will resonate with Ross Perot supporters, who could hold the balance of power in November '96. At the very least, the Presidential blitz will put the capital's pinstriped legions on the defensive. One key GOP strategist concedes the party's lovefest with business could indeed backfire. "It hasn't yet," he says, "but I hear it ticking." So can Bill Clinton, who has decided that some of the same folks he served coffee and canapes to last year make irresistible targets now.